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Saturday, June 07, 2014

My short story: Spidergoat


- The Crown Room, Hotel del Coronado

About 10 years ago I belonged to an online writers BBS and we wrote short stories and critiqued each others stuff. I usually wrote science fiction stories and today I was reminded of one of them ... Spidergoat. I thought it up after reading about Biosteel. The story isn't great (and I went overboard with the commas) but it was fun to write. It's set on Coronado Island in San Diego, home to both the famous Hotel del Coronado and a navy base. The story is told from the viewpoint of Ben, a San Diego police officer. And PS: VX gas really does exist ;) ....

* * *

Coronado Island, San Diego, California
11:20 pm, January 12, 2018


Crouched behind a low sand dune and shivering in the brisk evening breeze, I peeled off my scuba gear, while scanning the darkened beach for Leo. I'd received his cryptic message half an hour ago. In a voice bereft of emotion, he'd said his son was in danger and had asked me to meet him at his favorite site for jogging if I wanted to help. I knew Leo ran on Coronado's Central Beach every morning, so that part was easy. The hard part was getting here. Coronado had been evacuated this afternoon due to an industrial accident at the naval air base on the north side of the island ... I'd had to use scuba gear to slip past the military guards at the bridge.

A motion caught my eye, Leo waving to me from behind another dune. Grabbing my gear, I joined him. As we knelt there, the dark swells of the Pacific at our backs, I saw that his gaze was riveted on the 130 year-old resort, the Hotel del Coronado, across the wide silvery stretch of beach. There was no sign of his seven year old son, Andy, and no hint of the danger he'd warned of in his message. At a loss, I touched his shoulder, breaking his concentration on the moon-lit hotel.

"Leo, ..."

"You brought your weapon?" he interrupted, checking the magazine of his own pistol.

I nodded, feeling the reassuring weight of minel in my shoulder holster.

"Then let's move, Ben." Leo glanced up the beach towards the north part of the island where the naval air base lay, then back at me. "We only have forty minutes."

I caught his arm. "You asked me to come - I'm here. But what's going on, where's Andy?"

My partner in the San Diego Police Department shook his head, impatient. "I'll fill you in as we go. At midnight, this whole island will be saturated with VX nerve gas."

I held on to his arm. "VX gas? I thought Coronado was evacuated because of an industrial accident at the base. What .."

Leo pulled out of my grip and stared at me with wild, desperate eyes. "That's just the story put out for the public. There are monsters loose on this island, Ben, and my son is somewhere in that hotel."

Leo refused to say more and moved quickly away, sliding from one shadow to another, past the umbrellas that dotted the beach, toward the hotel. I hesitated, then sighed in frustration. As I trailed after him, a feeling of foreboding began to build and I had to remind myself that Leo could be trusted. We'd been partners for years and I respected his competence and integrity. And more than that, we were friends ... if his son was in trouble, I wanted to help.

I caught up to him as he paused to peer across the last open stretch of sand between us and the Hotel del Coronado. "Why would Andy be at the hotel," I began, "and what did you mean ..."

With a muttered oath, he pulled me deeper into the shadows beside him. "Ben, lower your voice!"

I kept a grip on my temper. "The island's been evacuated, remember? Who's going to hear me?"

"Not who ... what."

"Right, I forgot ... the monsters."

I regretted my sarcasm when I saw Leo's expression darken but then he raked a hand through his hair and finally began to talk. "Do you remember the creation of an experimental animal called spidergoat? In 2002, a Canadian lab and the US army joined to gift a goat with spider DNA, causing it to produce spidersilk in its milk. The spidersilk was extremely strong, five times as strong as steel, and incredibly light. The military wanted it for body armor, among other things, and the civilian applications were innumerable."

I nodded, recalling the experiment and the resulting invention of a new biodegradable form of steel. But what did this have to do with monsters or Andy? Leo continued to explain as we huddled in the cool darkness.

"The military's demand for spidersilk rose exponentially with the massive effort to deflect the asteroid due to strike the Earth next year. The existing supply of the silk was inadequate so they improvised, radically. Six months ago, a special test herd of goats was raised on this island, on the large tract of land belonging to the naval air base. This time, the scientists gave the goats the DNA of giant bird-eating spiders from South America, thinking bigger spiders would equal more spidersilk. The goats were also given a shred of human DNA to improve their intelligence, making them able to understand simple commands. The result was ... unexpected."

"What do you mean?" I felt my stomach tighten, fairly certain I wasn't going to like the answer.

Leo stared out over the sand towards the moon-limed ocean, his expression grim. "They're not sure why, but they think some extraneous junk DNA from the host spiders reacted unpredictably in the recipient goats, causing massive morphological changes. The spider DNA dominated and rewrote most of the goat DNA, resulting in spider-like creatures the size of ponies who could produce only a minimal amount of silk and who appeared to be sentient ... intelligent. When the government ultimately decided the experiment had failed, decided to destroy them, some of the creatures escaped south along the beach to make a stand in this hotel." He glanced at his watch "In thirty minutes, the government will envelop this island in nerve gas to destroy the creatures and to hide their mistake."

The idea of pony-sized spiders was mind-blowing enough ... adding rudimentary human intelligence to that equation defied reasoned thought. "How can you know all this? And how is your son involved?"

Leo seemed to sag and, for the first time since I'd known him, he seemed defeated, lost. "You know my wife and I were recently divorced. She's been seeing another guy lately, a scientist working on the spidergoat project here at the naval air base. He lets Andy hang out there with him after school. The boy's fascinated by the spidergoats - they're all he can talk about anymore."

I suppressed a sigh. That explained a lot about Leo's mood lately - he'd lost his wife and now felt he was losing his son, too. Not knowing what to say, I just nodded and let him continue.

"Andy phoned me from the hotel about an hour ago. He said he'd been at the lab when the spidergoat creatures escaped, that they'd taken him hostage. They want me to make a deal with the government for them - their safety for Andy's release. I called an old friend, an admiral in the navy, but he said no deal was possible, that it was too late to change the government's choice of a final option, the VX gas."

Leo stopped, closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. Then he straightened his spine. "To hell with the government and their final option. I'm going in there to get Andy."

I had my reservations as to the sanity of Leo's plan, but I knew I couldn't let him do this alone. I forced myself to match his grave bravado. "Want some company?"

* * * * *

We crept through the dark labyrinthian hallways and corridors of the huge empty hotel, making our way to the place Andy had said the creatures were holding him - the Crown Room. Here and there, long shreds of filmy spidersilk swirled in the wake of our passing and the air held a pervasive stench of something disturbingly foreign. I glanced at Leo. He had the look he always wore when we were in trouble on the job - determined but cool. I envied his nervelessness. Checking my weapon again, I wondered which was the worst way to go - death by VX nerve gas or death by giant spider.

As I followed Leo's stealthy progress through dim hallways ever more shrouded in webbing, part of my brain calmly calculated the morbid possibilities of each method. VX gas, created in England in the 1950's as a pesticide, was still the most deadly nerve agent in existence - they'd even made a movie about it years ago called The Rock. If inhaled or absorbed through the skin, it killed in minutes ... convulsions, coma, death. And all that was after your skin bubbled and peeled off. A daunting alternative.

On the other hand, getting eaten by a monstrous spider unleashed atavistic dread on a whole number of levels. I seemed to remember reading once that spiders paralyzed their prey with their venom and then regurgitated a digestive fluid onto the still living victim, slowly decomposing them so that their liquefied internal organs could be easily slurped ...

"Ben!"

Leo pulled me into the shelter of a recessed doorway. "The Crown Room is just ahead," he whispered. "I don't want to go in shooting - Andy might get hurt. Let's just walk in, slow and quiet, and size up the situation. But if things start to go south ..."

I understood. In that case, we'd have to fight our way out.

As we approached the entrance to the Crown Room, the weird odor grew stronger and I could swear I heard my heart thudding against my ribs, the only sound in the eerie silence. The large double doors were open and a softly lament illumination poured out into the unlit hallway. Leo ventured a quick look inside and then froze in place. Curiosity getting the better of caution, I stepped out of cover beside him and, as I gazed into the room, I was stunned. The Crown Room was famous for its high domed ceiling, crown-shaped chandeliers, panoramic view of the ocean, but I registered none of that. In the center of the huge chamber, perched atop the Crown Room's large grand piano, sat an impossibility ... a spider-like being as large as the piano itself. And held gently close to the creature with one black skeletal limb, was Leo's son.

Andy's eyes were closed and he seemed unhurt, peaceful, almost drowsing. Or were we too late? I saw Leo tense to lunge forward and was barely able to hold him back. The movements roused Andy and he glanced first at us and then at the shadowed ceiling as he called softly to Leo. "I'm all right, Dad. Stay very still!"

Following his gaze, I felt my blood run cold. The ceiling roiled. Everywhere I looked, out-sized eight-legged creatures crept and crawled, over the ceiling, over each other ... I tore my eyes away and swallowed hard, looking back at Andy and his captor. Leo's son seemed remarkably unafraid, and Leo, taking note of this, regained some of his composure. We all seemed to teeter on the knife-edge of action but no one, no thing, initiated it. In those few frozen moments, my attention was completely given to the creature that held Andy in its spidery embrace. It was not only unusual in its size ... it had patches of grayish hair among the black bristles on its ovoid body and instead of the normal spider's compound set of eyes, it had only two large mammalian ones above its mandibles ... remnants of the goat DNA, I guessed.

Body quivering with the effort of restraint, Leo asked softly, "Are you all right, son?"

"I'm okay, Dad," Andy reassured him. "I don't think they'll hurt me as long as everyone stays calm." The boy looked pointedly at our weapons and we reluctantly lowered them. "I told them about you, that you're going to help them."

As Andy spoke, the creature on the piano dragged forth a small handheld device and began to poke at the keyboard with the sharp tip of a leg. Andy scanned the screen and then related to us what his captor wished to communicate. "It wants to know if the care-givers will let them come back, once I'm released. It says the spidergoats don't know what they did wrong, but they're sorry and promise not to do it again. They just want to go back home, to the lab."

Leo and I exchanged a glance both surprised and grim. We knew the government would never let the spidergoats "go home" except as corpses for dissection. We had nothing to negotiate with - it was looking as though we'd have to fight our way out of here after all. I tightened my sweaty grip on my pistol and took a deep steadying breath. Andy's eyes widened as they moved back and forth between Leo and me and what he saw there made him shake his head. "No! Don't!" The creatures hanging above us rustled nervously at his outburst and he lowered his voice. "Dad, let me talk to it first."

As Andy spoke to the huge spidergoat at his side, as he repeated to us what it typed out on the handheld in response, I re-evaluated my first impression of the creature. It seemed less a ravening monster now than a lost soul. Leo must have sensed this too because he took a chance ... in simple terms he hoped the spidergoat could understand, he explained that there would be no deal with the government. When he told the creature that it and the others could never go back home, I almost thought I could see a child-like glint of abandonment in its strange eyes. As it drew its limb from around Andy, Leo took a step forward and I held my breath, but unaccountably, the creature only pushed the boy gently toward us.

Leo crushed his son to him for a moment and then propelled us both before him to the entrance to the Crown Room. "Let's get the hell out of here while we have the chance," he muttered. It seemed unbelievable that the creatures would let us go, getting nothing in return, but with only twenty minutes before the release of the VX gas, we couldn't look this gift-horse in the mouth. We jogged down the hallway to the door exiting the hotel, Leo pulling the boy along by the hand.

As I held the door open for Andy, he suddenly turned to his father, a kind of realization dawning in his eyes. "Why are you in such a hurry? Something terrible's going to happen, isn't it? Is the navy going to bomb the island, something like that?"

"We don't have time ..." Leo began brusquely, but Andy tore his hand out of his father's grasp and demanded the truth. Sighing in defeat, Leo explained.

"Dad, you have to help the spidergoats, tell them about the gas. Please!"

Leo exchanged a look with me and my feeling of foreboding increased. "Leo, we have less than twenty minutes."

"They didn't hurt Andy when they could have ... I guess the least I can do is warn them. Take the boy to where we left the scuba gear. If I'm not there in ten minutes, leave without me."

Knowing that arguing with him would be futile, I dragged Andy after me through the door and out into the empty darkness of the windswept beach.

* * * * *

I helped Andy put on the extra wet suit Leo had brought along and then the two of us stood, staring at the Hotel del Coronado, transfixed. Thanks to the illumination from the crescent moon, we had the surreal experience of watching dozens of huge spidergoats crawling to the topmost spire on the roof of the hotel. Once there, they seemed almost to stand on tiptoe, lifting their legs into the air as they spun numerous filmy tendrils of spidersilk from the spinnerets on their abdomens. The silken strands coalesced and, caught up by the stiff sea-ward breeze, billowed out behind the spidergoats, lifting them up, one by one, from their perches. I would have thought their bodies too heavy to achieve lift-off but apparently their exo-skeletal composition rendered them lighter than they looked. As we watched, they floated out towards the dark Pacific.

I peered at my watch ... only seven minutes before the gas was deployed. Shifting my gaze, I saw with relief that Leo was running our way over the sand. As he caught his breath and pulled on his wet suit, he explained the spidergoats' actions.

"They're ballooning. It's a way spiders have of traveling over long distances, using their webbing as a kind of hot air balloon. It was tough convincing them to leave, even after I told them about the nerve gas. They just wanted everything to return to the way it was before. They finally understood there was no going back."

Concerned, Andy said, "But, they're just being blown out to sea."

Leo smiled reassurance. "About thirteen miles out there, in Mexican waters, are the Coronado Islands - uninhabited. That will be their first stop on the way to the Amazon Rainforest."

I frowned. "Tomorrow, after the gas has dispersed, the navy will be here, looking for spidergoat bodies. When they find none, they'll start searching."

Leo nodded, his smile fading. "I know. I explained to the creatures that they could never return, had to disappear. I think they understood."

The boy watched the last of the spidergoats disappear out over the ocean and then turned his gaze back to his father. "I'm glad you came for me, Dad. I wasn't sure, with the way things have been between you and mom ..."

Leo squeezed his son's shoulder. "I'll always be here for you. Never doubt that."

Andy seemed satisfied with this and looked back out to sea. "How will they survive down there in the jungle? They were raised in a lab - they don't even know how to catch their own food."

Leo shrugged. "I don't know, son ... maybe instinct will inform them. At least now they have a chance. And truthfully, that's all any of us ever really has."

I grabbed them both, pulling them after me. "And if we're going to have that chance, we have to hit the water, now!"

* * * * *

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